Moxibustion: A Smoke Screen?

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 01.38.38Professionals: Concerned about women waving giant sticks of burning wacky weed around their wee toes in a desperate attempt to turn their breech babies?! Take action NOW! Ensure that these women can access support for a vaginal breech birth with an experienced, trusted professional, and you will no longer have to busy yourself trying to root out such madness!

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 06.51.12Last week the results of a trial (Coulon et al 2014) were released which appeared to show moxibustion with acupuncture ineffective in causing more babies to turn head-down. The trial had its good points. A reasonable number of women randomised (328) at the appropriate point in pregnancy (33+4 – 35+4) to use moxibustion for maximum effectiveness. This in itself was impressive, as most centres do not bother about breech presentation until 36 weeks, making recruitment for studies during this time period difficult. The team looked at the percentage of babies who remained breech at 37+2, the point when ECV (a procedure to manually try to turn the baby in the uterus to a head-down position) would be offered, and found that 72% who had the treatment were still breech, compared with 63.4% who had the placebo. They reported this was not statistically different, but superficially it looks like the treatment had the opposite of the desired effect.

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 01.38.58On the other hand, they appear to have used actual needles, heated with moxibustion, rather than the method most commonly used in UK-based moxibustion practices, which involves using the heated sticks only. Also, the intervention and placebo were applied for only six sessions. Generally, women using moxibustion in the UK are usually taught to home-administer (usually with the help of her partner) and then instructed to follow a ten-day course, applying moxibustion twice a day, and continuing whether the baby turns or not. The ten-day, moxibustion-only practice follows a less treat-to-cure, and more treat-to-nourish philosophy, the idea being that the moxibustion nourishes the energy of the womb and promotes optimal positioning. (No swearing until I’ve finished the article, please!)

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 01.39.14I’m a fan of observing responses to research on Twitter. (See this previous discussion on hypnosis for childbirth.) And Twitter did not disappoint. The Green Journal announced the Coulon study, and obstetricians celebrated their vindication for having dismissed the practice years ago. There’s nothing like the joy of scientific confirmation of one’s deeply held beliefs. It was as if somebody walked into a room full of midwives and said, “Hey, guess what? Continuity of carer improves outcomes for everybody!” (By the way, it does.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 02.12.23But then a woman who had actually experienced a breech pregnancy pointed out the obvious: What are the alternatives? Generally, women are highly motivated to give birth vaginally (Raynes-Greenow et al 2004Guittier et al 2011). They instinctively feel what the research tells us – that  a normal birth, wherever possible, is beneficial for both babies and women. There are many hospitals throughout the Western world, including some in the UK, where women cannot even access an ECV, let alone a vaginal breech birth. I’ve had phone conversations where I’ve asked to speak with the person who performs ECVs and been told, “We don’t do that here for liability reasons.” Folks, it’s 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 01.38.22With evidence-based counselling based on the outcomes of the Term Breech Trial, Kok et al 2008 found at least 35% of women preferred to plan a vaginal breech birth. Evidence-based counselling includes the lack of evidence of any difference between two-year outcomes whether an elective caesarean section or a vaginal breech birth is planned (Whyte et al 2004). We can reasonably conclude that if approximately 1/3 of women are not planning a vaginal breech birth in a given setting, then they are probably being directively counselled towards a caesarean section. This would include feeling forced to choose a caesarean section because no plan will be put in place to ensure attendance at a vaginal breech birth by an experienced and supportive professional.

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 01.41.57Women resort to practices such as moxibustion and handstands in the swimming pool because they are constantly given the message that breech presentation is ‘wrong’ and should be corrected, with very few alternatives. Whereas the evidence indicates that turning babies, even with ECV, does not improve outcomes for those babies, though it certainly improves the chances of a vaginal birth in settings with minimal support for vaginal breech birth (Hofmeyr and Kulier, 2012 – Cochrane Review). I am increasingly uncomfortable with the current situation, where women do things they do not actually want to do because they cannot access a vaginal breech birth at all, or will not be supported to choose that option until they have done everything else (especially ECV).

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 01.40.36Personally, I have no strong opinion on the use of moxibustion itself, as I generally prefer to leave the use of complementary therapies up to what works for individual women, as long as they do not pose a threat to her or her baby. I have taken training to be able to offer women advice, and I have supported women through the use of moxibustion. (We usually spend the ‘treatment’ time talking through the issues around breech birth.) When I speak publicly about breech management, someone usually asks me why I have not included moxibustion. And I tend to dodge the question, not so much because I am convinced of its efficacy or not, but because I believe it is professionals’ attitudes towards breech presentation and not the breech itself that needs to be ‘corrected.’

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 06.19.23Let me propose this radical solution: Why don’t we channel some of that indignation over moxibustion practices into ensuring that breech services improve to a point where women will not need to look elsewhere? Let’s ensure every woman has access to a well-supported vaginal breech birth, an ECV attempted by a highly experienced practitioner, and/or a woman-centred caesarean section as late in her pregnancy as she wishes to plan it, including in early labour. Let’s ensure that women have sympathetic, experienced counselling and continuity from a midwife while they navigate these choices, and the attendance of a highly experienced consultant, ready to step up and be that expert in complications of childbirth, backing up the team at birth.

No Re-tweet, sadly ;-)

No Re-tweet, sadly 😉

While we must always make room for those who choose a different path, I suspect that if we got a bit more comfortable with breech in general, the debate over whether moxibustion has a place in the mainstream or not would fade into the distance. Stop blaming pregnant women for their misled attempts to avoid a caesarean section, and the sympathetic midwives who are desperate to help them, and sort out primary breech services.







Choice 1 Choice 2 Choice 3




[Note: I can only access the abstract to Coulon et al at the moment, as it has been posted ahead-of-print. I’ll update the post when it’s published, if there’s anything more to say.]


9 thoughts on “Moxibustion: A Smoke Screen?

  1. Rachel Moule

    This is such a helpful breakdown and synthesis of the evidence base in relation to the care context, thank you so much! I will share this posting with my student midwives to inspire them 🙂

  2. Sarah

    Ah Shawn, you are so brilliant and I so appreciate your posts, giving some sanity to all the fuss around VBB. As a VBB mama, who had the support of an amazing midwife but given limited options in 2010 to birth my breech bub, I tried EVERYtHInG to turn my bub, but why? Not because anything was wrong with him. Only that I knew I could birth naturally and wanted to avoid CS. And I did that with an amazing support team (husband, midwife, doula) and a reluctant Registrar.
    I wholeheartedly agree – retraining is desperately needed and thank goodness for midwives like you!

  3. Rebecca

    Pregnant mum i know is convinced that moxibustion worked for her recently given the baby’s movements as it was happening. Totally agree though with your call for more experience and provision for planned vaginal breech births. I was shocked to be told by my midwife team last year that no midwife on the team had any experience of a breech birth, even the longer-serving midwives!

    1. midwifeshawn

      Rebecca, thanks for this. Definitely, some women are convinced it has worked for them, and perhaps it has! Other women feel similar movements even when baby does not shift, and it leaves them feeling that they did what they could to encourage a shift in the gentlest possible way, but it was not right for their baby. And some just find it weird, disappointing and occasionally aggravating to their asthma (as even the ‘smokeless’ version smokes). However, research indicates that most women would try moxibustion again, even when presented with evidence that it is not more effective on the general population than waiting for baby to turn spontaneously (Guittier et al 2012). Health professionals must keep an open mind and accept that women approach health care in different ways, but in the current ‘turn or else!’ climate surrounding breech (in most places), the debate over this complementary therapy has blown way out of proportion. Women get caught in the middle, unjustly. x Shawn

  4. Devaunshi

    Ok, this is bs because as a practitioner in Los Angeles I just turned a breech baby with moxibustion at 38 weeks. Stop fear mongering!!! A breech baby is a very scary situation to begin with and a woman in this situation needs to know that there are other non invasive options which can have the baby flip,…unless of course its a sticky placenta (primarily diet related) but Moxibustion – or as you call it in your article – giant burning wacky sticks….DOES WORK!! check yourself….no experience = not allowed to talk

    1. midwifeshawn

      Congratulations. As I said, I do have experience using moxibustion and working with women who use moxibustion, and many of those babies have turned. I also have experience working with women for whom moxibustion has not worked. I have no experience with sticky placentas, so I will avoid talking about them.


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